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Jan 23, 2006

The loco promotion

Who says we're boring? A stunning amount of sometimes strange, sometimes sensational things took place in the Bundesliga since we last spoke in earnest, meaning before the winter break set in and I was forced to fill precious columns with far-fetched and incoherent ramblings.

Take that surreal Tuesday, January 3rd. During the course of the day, press releases from three different clubs came over the wire, announcing important statements would be made. The clubs in question were Cologne, Schalke and Stuttgart. The first two were looking for head coaches, so the press pack scented the presentation of two new gaffers. Ottmar Hitzfeld, Christoph Daum, Erik Gerets and Matthias Sammer were in the running at Schalke, whispered the grapevine, while Cologne had been linked with Ralf Rangnick, Klaus Toppmöller, Sammer again and the Austrian Walter Schachner.

But Stuttgart - what was that about? Had Giovanni Trapattoni thrown in the towel? It wasn't inconceivable, though the timing seemed strange. In the end, Stuttgart's president Erwin Staudt caught the reporters off-guard twice. First by declaring that the club's director of football, Herbert Briem, would return to his former post - being head of the scouting department. Second by saying that Briem's successor was Horst Heldt, the 36-year-old midfielder whom Trapattoni hadn't granted a single game this season.

'He has seen everything as a professional and is intellectually capable of translating his knowledge into action,' explained Staudt.

Considering the fact Briem had come under fire because he supposedly lacked the necessary qualifications for the job of director of football, Heldt's promotion seemed unconventional, to say the least. 'In autumn, he was taking his orders from Trapattoni as a sub, now he's enjoying equal status. That smacks of conflicts. Add to that he is taking over the post without any kind of experience,' said the Stuttgart Newspaper with more than a tinge of foreboding.

Meanwhile, some 370 kilometres to the north-west, Cologne were unwrapping a surprise gift of their own. Business manager Michael Meier revealed he had spoken to no less than 21 potential candidates over the past weeks before finally settling on, cough cough, a certain Hanspeter Latour as new coach. The former Grasshoppers Zurich boss was certainly a respected man in his home country, but it took the Cologne journalists quite a few attempts to even get the name spelled correctly. When Latour was asked whether he was aware FC Cologne are a bit out of the ordinary, he replied: 'Yes, this is a crazy club. Otherwise they wouldn't have signed a Swiss.' The Sueddeutsche Zeitung was so baffled it could only comment Cologne had hit upon 'an original solution'.

But these two announcements were just the warm-up rounds. Because at Schalke, a sizeable flock of newspapermen, TV crews and radio reporters was still waiting for the unmasking of the mystery man. And waiting. And waiting. It was already dusky around the clubhouse, when business manager Andreas Mueller informed the press people there was a problem, as the new coach was stuck in a traffic jam on the A2. A lorry carrying sludge had suffered a slight mishap, forcing the police to close the messy and stinky motorway.

This piece of news didn't exactly lift the mood of the hacks, who were already OD-ing on caffeine and had smoked too many cigarettes on empty stomachs. What prevented a mass reporter riot from breaking out was that bit about the A2. What the heck was the new coach doing on that motorway? It runs from Hanover to Oberhausen, horizontally cutting through the Ruhr area. But surely the new coach, who was by now rumoured to be the Norwegian Trond Sollied, was coming from the north or south, where the large airports are?

The Sollied question was also what Mirko Slomka, Schalke's assistant coach, was preoccupied with during those drawn-out hours. He had been asked to get to the clubhouse as quickly as possible, but Andreas Mueller had refused to go into more detail. And so Slomka was fairly sure he would be given his papers, probably because Sollied was bringing his own men in. Fair and square, of course.

Even though he was going to get fired, Slomka couldn't help but admire Mueller's style - the business manager was obviously determined to give him the bad news face to face, instead of just phoning. That face-to-face talk, however, would have to wait, because Slomka, living in Hanover, was stuck in a traffic jam on the A2...

He arrived at the clubhouse 33 minutes after midnight. While he was walking up the stairs, a reporter who still hadn't lost his sense of humour, asked him what he'd do in case the board was to offer him the job of head coach. 'They are certainly not going to do that,' Slomka replied with a smile. A few minutes later he was the new man in charge. What a day!

Yes, we have had some very interesting moves those past weeks, a trend that probably started when Duisburg decided Juergen Kohler was the man to save them from suffering the drop. Kohler certainly carries an impressive CV, yet there isn't an awful lot of coaching to be found in it - just his spell at the helm of Germany's U21-side, cut short after nine months when he decided he'd much rather be director of football at Leverkusen.

And then there was Kohler's old team-mate, Lother Matthaeus. Not wanting to be outdone by the January 3 shenanigans in Stuttgart, Cologne and Schalke, he delivered the icing on the cake - as is his wont - a week later by signing for Atletico Paranaense. Many reports called this Brazilian club 'tradition-laden', mainly because it was founded in 1924. Hmm, guess those writers are better informed than I am. The only thing I knew about Paranaense was that they'd played an unforgettable Copa Libertadores match a few years back - when they blew a 5-1 lead at half-time to draw 5-5.

The online version of Spiegel magazine said that 'Matthaeus's coaching career is becoming more and more odd', probably referring to the fact his most recent stints included coaching a side for a TV docu-soap - the team was called 'Borrussia Banana' and was made up of people who'd never played football before. But most commentators were surprisingly subdued, maybe because they have gotten used to our record international moving to a new country almost every year. Or maybe they felt that after all those strange signings, Lothar Matthaeus becoming the first European coach at a big Brazilian club was just par for the course.


  • Uli's seminal history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

    Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.

  • Any thoughts on this article? Email us.